The Books: “Bad Behavior” – ‘Secretary’ (Mary Gaitskill)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Bad Behavior: Stories – by Mary Gaitskill – a short story collection – I’ll excerpt from the sixth story today: ‘Secretary’.

‘Secretary’. of course, was made into a film. It’s hard to picture any of Gaitskill’s stories being made into films (especially American films which can be so hypocritical about sex. By cramming everything into the PG-13 rating, to appeal to teenagers, it ensures that the views of sex will be prurient and dirty-minded. So the ratings system dooms any honestly sexual film from the start.) Kudos to the studio who let 8 Mile, for example, get an R-rating. The rating of that film sent a very clear message about who it was for. He has armies of tweens who adore him, but that rating left them out of the picture. 8 Mile NEEDED that rating, it would have suffered under a PG-13 rating, it couldn’t have been as honest as it needed to be. And it still made 40 million bucks in its opening weekend. Kudos to the studio execs at Focus Features who let Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution go out with the dreaded NC-17 rating. Good, to those willing to take a risk. in order to maintain the integrity of the film.

I suppose Secretary could be described as “out there” although I personally DON’T find it “out there”. The movie was quite startling, because it didn’t treat S&M as though it were a problem that needed to be solved, or as emblematic of abuse, or that she was a sicko who needed treatment. The film is still Hollywood-ized a bit, with the ending (although quite effective, in context of the film) and I am sure Gaitskill saw the final product and had a nice chuckle to herself about it. To my taste, the film works wonderfully on its own. And where the movie veers off into its own entity )her being a “cutter”, her in the wedding dress at the end, her being let out of an institution, etc.) – all of that stuff ends up adding to the overall narrative push.

The original story is much bleaker than the film. She does not get the release that the movie provides her. It ends up being a weird little episode between her and her boss that detaches her even more from reality, but that’s okay, because she prefers to be detached from reality. In the film, the sado-masochistic relationship with her boss is her way IN to a more integrated and full emotional life. It is her way out of being dominated by her parents. It is her ticket to healing, growth, and … well, love. Gaitskill “gets” S&M – make no mistake – she writes about it with convincing clarity and coldness. She doesn’t see it as deviant, just something that certain people are into… so what that some chick likes to be humiliated? If it works for her, whatever.

But as always, it’s not that simple. Gaitskill also gets that there are lines. People do have lines that should not be crossed, and the lines are different for each person. What is “too far”? How would you know?

Secretary is about a tentative unspoken exploration of those uneasy questions.

Our narrator is damaged. Passive, dominated by her parents, doesn’t have much going on. And this nutjob of a lawyer (he’s way more of a nutjob in the story, believe it or not!!) SEES her. He SEES her in a way she has never been seen.

And, as we know from science, we are changed when we are observed. We can’t help it.

EXCERPT FROM Bad Behavior: Stories – by Mary Gaitskill – ‘Secretary’.

The next day I made another mistake. The intimacy of the previous day seemed to make the mistake even more repulsive to him because he got madder than usual. I wanted him to fire me. I would have suggested it, but I was struck silent. I sat and stared at the letter while he yelled. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He stood quietly for a moment. Then he said, “Come into my office. And bring that letter.”

I followed him into his office.

“Put that letter on my desk,” he said.

I did.

“Now bend over so that you are looking directly at it. Put your elbows on the desk and your face very close to the letter.”

Shaken and puzzled, I did what he said.

“Now read the letter to yourself. Keep reading it over and over again.”

I read: “Dear Mr. Garvy: I am very grateful to you for referring …” He began spanking me as I said “referring”. The funny thing was, I wasn’t even surprised. I actually kept reading the letter, although my understanding of it was not very clear. I began crying on it, which blurred the ink. The word “humiliation” came into my mind with such force that it effectively blocked out all other words. Further, I felt that the concept it stood for had actually been a major force in my life for quite a while.

He spanked me for about ten minutes, I think. I read the letter only about five times, partly because it rapidly became too wet to be legible. When he stopped he said, “Now straighten up and go type it again.”

I went to my desk. He closed the office door behind him. I sat down, blew my nose and wiped my face. I stared into space for several minutes, every now and then dwelling on the tingling sensation in my buttocks. I typed the letter again and took it into his office. He didn’t look up as I put it on his desk.

I went back out and sat, planning to sink into a stupor of some sort. But a client came in, so I couldn’t. I had to buzz the lawyer and tell him the client had arrived. “Tell him to wait,” he said curtly.

When I told the client to wait, he came up to my desk and began to talk to me. “I’ve been here twice before,” he said. “Do you recognize me?”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course.” He was a small, tight-looking middle-aged man with agitated little hands and a pale scar running over his lip and down his chin. The scar didn’t make him look tough; he was too anxious to look tough.

“I never thought anything like this wouold ever happen to me,” he said. “I never thought I’d be in a lawyer’s office even once, and I’ve been here three times now. And absolutely nothing’s been accomplished. I’ve always hated lawyers.” He looked as though he expected me to take offense.

“A lot of people do,” I said.

“It was either that or I would’ve shot those miserable blankety-blanks next door and I’d have to get a lawyer to defend me anyway. You know the story!”

I did. He was suing his neighbors because they had a dog that “barked all goddamn day.” I listened to him talk. It surprised me how this short conversation quickly restored my sensibility. Everything seemed perfectly normal by the time the lawyer came out of his office to greet the client. I noticed he had my letter in one hand. Just before he turned to lead the client away, he handed it to me, smiling. “Good letter,” he said.

When I went home that night, everything was the same. My life had not been disarranged by the event except for a slight increase in the distance between me and my family. My behind was not even red when I looked at it in the bathroom mirror.

But when I got into bed and thought about the thing, I got excited. I was more excited, in fact, than I had ever been in my life. That didn’t surprise me, either. I felt a numbness, I felt that I could never have a normal conversation with anyone again. I masturbated slowly, to put off the climax as long as I could. But there was no climax, even though I tried for a long time. Then I couldn’t sleep.

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9 Responses to The Books: “Bad Behavior” – ‘Secretary’ (Mary Gaitskill)

  1. Diana says:

    Oh, I got this book from the library after your first post about it. I actually had to take a break after the first two stories; the people are SO damaged it was making me uncomfortable. Which isn’t a bad thing, not at all. I need to go back to it!

  2. red says:

    Diana – i totally know what you are talking about. I find Gaitskill pretty hard to take at times, too – especially if I am feeling low or disconnected. I have to be in a really strong mood to be able to deal with her.

  3. Jon says:

    …”one hand dangling sideways from his wrist”…”He was a small, tight-looking middle-aged man with agitated little hands and a pale scar running over his lip and down his chin”…these are just the sorts of amazing details that not only support one of Elmore Leonard’s (perhaps too-hard-and-fast?) caveats about how far to go in describing a character (esp. in a short story–the syntax/rhythm here alone is so strong!), but also give us the kind of air we need to continue appreciating Debby’s emotionally discombobulating situation–which starts to seem, partly because of such well-tempered description, no more “wierder” or “deviant” than that of someone falling for her boss in the “usual” way: flowers, chocolate, out-to-dinner, weekend in the tropics, etc. Also, if you’re interested in a more detailed discussion of the story’s film adaptation, I seem to recall Erin Wilson (the screenwriter) going on at length about the nature of her fidelity to the story (as well as her departures from it) in a fairly wild introduction to the shooting script of “Secretary” (saw it in a bookstore once, way back when…) Might be worth checking out. Erin Wilson is a trip herself. Oh, yeah, and one more thing: re-reading this excerpt makes me think of another great “secretary” piece, called “Flotsam” by Deborah Eisenberg (have you read her stuff? I think you’d love her) Totally different story, and yet there some pretty wonderful similarities–both in terms of setting and tone. Check her out. I think it’s in her 1st collection, called “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” and the story was (I think) her first pub’d piece, in the NY’er, about 25 years ago or so.

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  5. Pingback: The original “Secretary” « SUNYOWFilm

  6. Fionnchú says:

    I wanted this film to be so much more, but Maggie Gyllenhaal’s brave performance does redeem a screenplay that veers for me away from its promising set-up. As you note, the Mary Gaitskill story published in the collection “Bad Behavior” did end badly, so the chirpier adaptation has its own tentative grace, despite considerable clumsiness. I think its makers were embarrassed by the topic. The story (I’d read it when it came out in 1988) and the film ultimately had less in common, commercial demands– and a bit of prudery perhaps– persisting despite Gaitskill’s edgier intent. Even arthouse crowds appeared unsettled by this, I recall from my viewing.

    (P.S. I found your fine review in a Google search, ranked highly! I shared the URL — and expanded on the comment above– with another FB friend who posted a trailer of the film here.)

  7. Olivia says:

    Old blog post, but I’ve just found it so I’m going to respond anyway.

    I am so fed up with ‘mainstream’ anal-retentives who look down their snouts with an inherent need to label as ‘sick’ those who don’t fit into their tight, stifling, boring little world.

    What cheeses me off about the movie ‘Secretary’ – and I’m so surprised you didn’t see the bleedin’ obvious – is that hollywood, in its idiocy, created the ‘understanding’ at the very beginning, that Lee is mentally deficient – she cuts herself – she was in an institution for it.

    With Mr E. Edward Gray, the producers demonstrate that he, too, is mentally deficient – despite being a lawyer – when he types Lee a message, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I do this…” And let’s not forget about his obsession with red pens and hyperactive criticisms.

    The producers, being american and therefore obsessively prudish, present BDSM as something that attracts those who are mentally damaged in some way.

    I don’t know about the author or the original story, but I’ve no intention of reading it if the movie is anything to go by – it’s just another way to label those who are different.

    • sheila says:

      “I have no intention of reading it” – Well that settles that then! You are ranting about the movie in a post that is about the short story. Gaitskill is a hell of a writer, even though she is American. Hope you change your mind and check out her stuff!

  8. Lauren says:

    I’ve read 3 Gaitskill books so far. “Bad Behavior” was a favorite because it fell away from the conventional drama of expected politically correct emotions and sensations of cool “hip” topics. I like that she wrote about what we may perceive as “hardcore”incidences of life, whatever they may be, as they stream alongside what American’s deem as “normal” (which is soooo far from the truth as can be). When we come to realize that rape, destruction, incest, pornography, or dominant and submissive behaviors are really the norm, and have been for some time, where does that wonderful world of Walt Disney leave us? I like reading her books and walking away observing these reality checks. The film, “Secretary,” is about as close as anything we could expect from a green light production concerning Gaitskill’s subjects at that time. Hurrah, for her getting even a bit of it out there. I thought it was handled gracefully and we didn’t treat it comically (maybe at the end it reaches a sly grin). It’s going to take a long time to invade the puritanical institution of this country to accept and confront what is and has been circumlocuted for a loooong time.

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